SPORTING CLUBE DE GOA are on something of a high. Featuring a rather low-key squad headed by the veteran Odafa Okolie, they travelled to the Kanteerava Stadium - one of the toughest destinations in the I-League - and handed title challengers Bengaluru FC their first home defeat of the season.
It wasn't the prettiest win ever, but a 10-man SCG side held onto their lead, and when BFC equalized Odafa scored again to get them full points. For a team like them, this is a huge morale booster. And they will want to carry that spirit back home tomorrow, when they face Salgaocar in the first Goa Derby of the season.
The Goa derbies, once a popular highlight of the Indian domestic season, have since lost their appeal. SCG play their home games week in and week out in a near-empty Fatorda Stadium. But in terms of significance in the league, this is one game that everybody will want to look at.
Both Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa were among the bottom clubs last season, fighting to survive relegation until the very end. This season, thanks to their wins against Aizawl FC and Bengaluru FC, the Flaming Oranjes are off to a reasonably better start, with 7 points from 5 matches, sitting sixth on the table. Salgaocar, however, have been a disaster so far. Under head coach Malky Thomson, they lost all 4 of their opening games. Later, they switched to Santosh Kashyap and got their first point in the campaign; a draw against Aizawl FC. With just 1 point from 5 matches, they are still the prime contenders for relegation.
Both the clubs will see this match as a must-win game, because of the way their subsequent fixtures are laid out. After tomorrow's match, SCG will spent the next four matchdays facing two strong teams, Mohun Bagan and Mumbai FC, both home and away, before hosting Bengaluru FC. Salgaocar, meanwhile, will be on the road taking on DSK Shivajians and East Bengal, before coming back to host Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mumbai FC. Bagging 3 points from this game and gaining some momentum is paramount to both their causes.
Salgaocar will be depending on the likes of Darryl Duffy and Jackichand Singh to carry out the attacks and create some chances. But that hasn't really been the biggest issue for them. They have notched up 5 goals so far, with Duffy scoring 3 of them. It's their defence that has been landing them in trouble. They have conceded 10 goals so far, the highest in the league. Fixing the leaky back four will be the biggest challenge for Kashyap in his new assignment. They will take some hope from the fact that after conceding 8 goals in the first 3 matches, they let in only one each in the subsequent games. If they can cap Odafa, SCG's chief source of goals, they have a good chance to grab the season's first clean sheet.
For Sporting Clube de Goa, this is a chance to really consolidate their standing in the league table. Since Shillong Lajong messed up Tuesday night against East Bengal, a win will send them into the leading pack of the points table; and more importantly, 9 points above the relegation candidate. Odafa wil once again be central to their plans, but their defence, headed by Loveday Enyinnaya and Fulganco Cardozo, will have a job in their hands to make sure Salgaocar don't end up with an early lead.
In terms of attack, both teams have overall comparable strengths. The main factor in this game is the Salgaocar defence, which is yet to be a fully baked unit. An experienced and gifted striker like Odafa can be especially lethal against a team like this, which gives SCG the obvious upper hand before coming into this game.
But the arrival of Santosh Kashyap is bound to have had a wide-ranging effect on the Salgaocar team. Against Aizawl, they conceded a goal only through a penalty. And now that the former Royal Wahingdoh coach has had a few days to spend with this squad, it may well be ready to cage Odafa and the rest of the modest SCG attack. And once that's done, it becomes a very unpredictable game where an odd goal from an unlikely source can decide the outcome. Either way, it seems that the Salgaocar defenders are set to become the heroes, or villains, of this first Goa Derby of this I-League season.